This is not your father’s Cuba. Oh wait, yes it is. At least for now. I spent last week on the Adonia, the first U.S. cruise ship to sail to Cuba from the U.S. in more than half a century, and while the cliché is true–it is like stepping back in time—even more overwhelming is the sense that this is all going to change. Fast.
Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, 1 1/2 times longer than the state of Florida, and visiting three stops at opposite ends of the country would be difficult if not impossible in one week by car. Travelling by cruise ship was comfortable and easy. Immigration was simple, our passports already contained the required Cuban visas, arranged by our
cruise line Fathom, one of Carnival Corporation’s 10 cruise brands, and the first to receive approval from the U.S. and Cuba for travel to Cuba. Within minutes of leaving Adonia, which carries only 704 passengers, we stepped onto the street in Havana to crowds of people cheering and waving to welcome us with shouts of “Welcome America!” and “We’re so glad you’re here!”
That first day in Havana was surreal, like I’d stepped onto the set of an old movie. Havana seems to have been frozen somewhere in the 1950s. Not painted, not repaired, not updated. The colonnaded city squares have gotten some fresh coats of paint, but following one of the narrow streets in any direction will lead you into a maze of what must have been a spectacularly beautiful city in the 1950s, now in varying states of disrepair and slow rebuilding. But the potential for what this city can be once again is staggering. Architectural beauty abounds in street after street of majestic arches that for now house maybe a small table of handmade crafts for sale, stately columned buildings painted in faded Caribbean colors, and elaborate iron-railed balconies hung with laundry. Havana is a big city, about two million people live here, and “the triumph of the revolution” as my young guide told me, which nationalized personal property, resulted in a jumble of new residents moving into what once were luxurious mansions and apartments.
The basic necessities we take for granted such as no air conditioning– I was prepared for that in Havana. But no lighting? Almost all inside spaces are dark, often lit by a single hanging incandescent bulb. Maybe.
But for me, what was missing was the best of all: no smartphones, no blaring televisions or pre-recorded musical assaults. No one was staring into their computer screen or looking down at their phone. Groups of children played in the square with a large empty plastic water bottle and sticks not with their heads buried in tablets. People waiting for the bus were talking, and young people walked holding hands, not their phones. The lack of internet and phone service –which has only recently become available in limited areas — has kept Cubans engaged in the present. People everywhere were interacting with each other and with us, the new visitors from America. Live bands of acoustic guitars, a bass and a flute or bongos played in almost every bar, and I never saw a television used as background entertainment. The sound of live Cuban music was everywhere. And the smell of cigars. Not cigar smoke, just a background, pleasant undertone of cigars was everywhere.
The new rules for travel in Cuba mean freedom from rules in general. You can choose to stay with the daily tours included with your Fathom tour, or you can “self-certify” in advance and head out on your own all day or leave your tour whenever the mood strikes you to explore wherever you’d like. Since you sleep each night in the comfort of the Fathom Adonia, finding a good hotel is not an issue, and you can even return to
the ship for your meals if you want, though I found the Cuban food was generally very good. There are no McDonalds or Starbucks or large restaurants or stores of any kind in Old Town Havana, only paladares–privately-owned restaurants. And there was very little to buy, even on Obispo, one of the main shopping streets. Small art galleries are sprinkled throughout the narrow streets or a few paintings and crafts hang on the outside of tiny stores–probably because it’s so dark inside! An antique and book market featured post-revolutionary books and fascinating small collectibles, particularly Soviet pins and other memorabilia. Prices were shockingly low and only Cuban currency was accepted or sometimes Euros, and no one took American money or credit cards.
My two days in Havana with Fathom gave me a quick overview of all this city has to offer. There is history– castles and museums abound, and if you want to explore recent history, Revolutionary Square with images of Che Guevara and other revolutionary heroes and soaring marble towers is a must. Transportation around the city is easy, and lots of my fellow cruise ship passengers ended up leaving their tours early to hire one of the old American cars to drive them around the city.
But for me the highlight was exploring the character-filled bars that peeked out through doorways, in courtyards and on rooftops all over Old Town Havana.
I ended each afternoon idling away a few hours exploring, talking with locals, and bar hopping, trying out daiquiris and mojitos and Cuba Libres, listening to one fabulous band after another until the draw of that next bar and that next band would pull me away. Everywhere the Cuban people were sincere and welcoming, and they all seemed to have known that the American cruise ship was coming. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long,” a young woman told me.
In the evening, the low lighting makes the streets of Havana even more romantic and mysterious, so an after dinner visit to the famous Tropicana is a dazzling and colorful surprise.
This enormous outdoor variety show is part Las Vegas, part Godfather and all spectacle. Elaborately costumed dancers and singers perform on different stages throughout the outdoor venue, even into the audience, and a live orchestra surrounds you with a constant drumbeat of music. I was mesmerized from the moment I stepped onto the property. This is the dazzling Cuban nightclub featured in the movie Godfather 2, but I didn’t know the Tropicana really existed and I certainly never expected this glamorous side of Havana to have survived from those pre-Revolutionary days. But it does exist and thrives and it is not to be missed.
Our early evening sailaway from Havana was bittersweet and too soon coming but the harbor was once again lined with Cubans shouting and waving farewell. With the Fathom Adonia arriving every two weeks, I hope this will become a tradition.
Our second stop in Cuba was Cienfuegos, a small town on the southern coast with a beautiful square of French Colonial buildings. We walked the narrow streets to a theatre unchanged since the 19th Century where we listened to a choral group sing traditional Cuban and American songs. It was a quick change from the big city of Havana and a good transition to our next stop a day’s sail away and a world away in attitude.
Santiago de Cuba is a long way from Havana and the mountainous terrain makes this a slow, difficult drive from the capital.
Without a doubt, the best and most picturesque way to arrive here is to sail into the long, beautiful harbor by ship. Cuba’s second largest city was the original capital and its harbor has been guarded by the imposing Castillo del Morro since the 17th Century. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Castillo is a labyrinth of rooms and battlements with old cannons and anchors strewn about and not a guard in sight.
Santiago de Cuba’s hilly narrow streets are lined with colorful wooden buildings and lots of the 1950s-era graphic signs have survived along the downtown streets. It seems a much more commercial city than Havana yet in other ways less modern. Unlike the horse-drawn carriages in Havana that seemed mainly for the tourists, the streets of Santiago de Cuba were filled with real working horse carts transporting people and cargo throughout the city streets. Vendors sold fresh vegetables from push carts, and there was more obvious poverty and panhandling. The beautiful mountainous setting, the architecture and the more active atmosphere in Santiago de Cuba is completely different than Havana. Visiting both cities, plus the much smaller Cienfuegos, as well as being able to see the beautiful coastline up close as we almost circumnavigated the island in a week, gave me a much more well-rounded view of Cuba.
This was not a trip to just another Caribbean island; it was a trip into a sweeter, pleasanter past before we became obsessed with technology. But with Americans now able to combine the slow joys of cruising with a more thorough exploration of this large, fascinating island just a one night sail from Miami, how long will this living cultural museum last? Who knows? Go now.